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2016 Mercedes-Benz G-Class

By Jacob Black

The G-Wagon is a stalwart of the Mercedes-Benz lineup. It’s the tough-guy car. It’s rugged, reliable and has an outward visage that says “Excuse me mate, but I’m about to do serious damage to you unless you apologize immediately.”

And yet under that ominous exterior is a squishy, soft underbelly of princely pampering and luxury. As a result it’s the go-to vehicle for all sorts of high-flyers – especially those who need a rapid getaway or chase-car vehicle, imposing road presence and safety – all without wrinkling their crisp suits. Not to mention the ability to transform into an armoured car.

“But can the G-Wagon really succeed off-road?” “We’ll find out,” was the reply from Mercedes-Benz.

I looked out the window. A thunderstorm was passing overhead, the tents and patio coverings were hastily being pulled down and stowed for safety as lightning flashed and horizontal rain lashed the window of the Mercedes-Benz hut in which we were getting our presentation. The ground that had been a dry, reddish-brown before was now a drenched, soggy, quagmire. The water ran in rivers down the steep embankments.

The tires on the trucks we’d be testing didn’t look particularly aggressive, yet the Mercedes-Benz folk seemed completely relaxed.

As I walked out to the end of the dock – it stopped being a mere walkway the moment the ground at the end of it became a swamp – a colleague pulled forward and allowed me to climb aboard. He parked right in a puddle I was sure I was now stuck in.

Climbing aboard I mentioned the likely bogged scenario to the instructor. He laughed too. “No,” was his simple reply to my assertion that we might be stuck.

And so, with the car in drive and the first driving setting (AWD) selected, we set off. And I’ll be damned if the G-Wagon didn’t pull itself out of the sticky mess without so much as a stutter.

In this case we’re only locking the centre differential. There are three diffs, all controllable via buttons on the centre stack. The centre, front, and rear can all be selected. A locking differential prevents the wheels spinning at different rates – so if one is up in the air it will still spin at the same rate as the other one regardless. Likewise if one is in mud and the other on solid rock. This improves traction but has an impact on steering (especially in the front axle). That short differential refresher given, we find ourselves at the base of a steep incline.

The G-Wagon can climb an 80 percent (36-degree) incline, but I’m daunted by the rivulets running down. We lock all three diffs, put the G-Wagon in low-range and up we go. The G-Wagon boasts a 34-degree approach angle and 29-degree departure angle.

A sharp left brings me to a deep gully, and I line up to straddle it, letting the car stay level with the wheels on the walls of the valley. “No, no no!” says the man next to me. “We go on just one side.”

The G-Wagon, I’m about to learn, can tackle a bank of 54 percent (28.4 degrees); that’s a heck of a lot more than the petrifying 36 percent bank I tackled in the 2016 Mercedes-Benz GLE. Unlike the GLE however, the G-Wagon has no angle sensor displays in the main screen, nor does it have any of the funky camera tricks the GLE has for seeing down hills and over crests. This of course means the hapless driver has to guess what angles they’re at when off-roading in serious situations. My guess is we were at seven-billion degrees of “Oh my God!”

Past the gully we turned sharp left – this thing has a surprisingly small turning circle – and headed for a pile of jagged rocks. With 200 mm of clearance the G-Wagon made short work of that obstacle, but I was more impressed by the performance of the 4WD system on the wet and slippery rocks – no slip, no spin, nothing – just clambered over like it was any other street.

All the while, the big, boxy frame of the G-Wagon was swaying and bobbing gently, the gas-pressured shocks and coil springs helping smooth out the rutted, bumpy, rock-strewn path.

There is no hill-descent control either. Instead G-Wagon drivers are encouraged to use the paddle shifters to keep the rig in a low gear and let the engine brake the car going down the hill. The one display the G-Wagon does have that was helpful was the one that showed me the current steering angle, this meant I could make sure my front wheels were properly straight before I began my descent.

The descent was problem free, but as I began to cross the mud flat now before me my instructor became agitated. “Slow, slow, slow down please!”

Two things. One: No. This has a 416-hp V8 in it – and it’s not even the good engine! I’m using this puppy, because of power. And Two: No. I know what happens when you slowdown in mud – but the instructor was insistent, and so I came to almost a complete halt. “Surely now we’re stuck,” I thought.

We weren’t. Not even a little bit. In fact, the whole course was completed without so much as a bobble, a wobble or a quiver – unless you count my bottom lip in the equation.

The tough-guy image put on by the G-Wagon is backed up when the going gets rough. But it’s not the outright capability of the car that’s most impressive. It’s the way it performs its tasks with total ease and comfort.

If you have a lazy $122,600, you too can have a genuine go-anywhere machine fit for a prince. $30K more will get you one with the “proper” engine, the one massaged by AMG to give you even more getaway grunt.

Even more than that (pricing yet to be announced) and you can get the most powerful of all – a 6.0L, 621 hp/738 lb-ft, twin-turbo V12.

And the best part is that even when you’re about to fall sideways off a cliff face you’ll be sitting in one of the most comfortable chairs money can buy, inside one of the plushest cabins this side of an S-Class.